Helen Gahagan Douglas:
A Life
Helen Douglas exiting a voting booth
Helen Gagahan Douglas actress portrait

Born on November 25, 1900, in Boonton, New Jersey, Helen Gahagan was a natural performer. Her professional life began on the stage, where she became a Broadway star at age twenty-two and also (by one critic's estimate) "ten of the twelve most beautiful women in America." After appearing in a quick succession of plays, she left the dramatic theater for opera, returning only for special occasions. On one such occasion she met her future husband, Melvyn Douglas. With Douglas, she moved to California in the 1930s. Once there she made her only film, a science fiction picture called She.

 

Left: Studio portrait of Douglas taken during her acting career, 1930s.

Above: Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, after casting her vote in the 1950 election.

It was also in California, surrounded by the misery of displaced "Okies," that she became interested in politics. She worked with the Farm Security Administration, becoming friends with John Steinbeck and Eleanor Roosevelt in the process. Thus initiated into politics, she ran for and was elected Democratic National Committeewoman from California. In 1944 she ran for the United States House of Representatives and won. Her district was the Fourteenth and consisted of much of Los Angeles.

Right: Eleanor Roosevelt, Melvyn Douglas, and Helen Gahagan Douglas visiting a California migrant labor camp, 1941.

Helen Douglas with Eleanor Roosevelt and Melvyn Douglas
Helen Douglas with war orphans

In the House, Douglas was a thoughtful and consistent New Deal Democrat, who worked tirelessly for liberal programs. A member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and an alternate delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations, she was heavily involved with postwar foreign relations. She was also a strong proponent of domestic programs such as price stabilization and rent control. For California she was a forceful advocate for federally controlled oil drilling and protecting the water rights of small farms. She served in the House for three terms until 1950, when she sought the Senate seat held by Sheridan Downey.

Left: Douglas, as an delegate to the United Nations, meeting with war orphans, 1946.

After a particularly nasty primary she faced Republican Congressman Richard Nixon in the general election. The campaign was destined to be one of the nation's most famous--and infamous. Nixon, waging an inspiring red-baiting campaign, was unrelenting in his charges. If he never actually called her a communist, saying she was "pink right down to her underwear" was not a fashion critique. His legions were yet less restrained. Murray Chotiner, Nixon's campaign manager, printed an infamous flyer that was handed out at rallies. Printed on pink paper (and, thus, forever known as the "pink sheet"), it more than implied a connection between Douglas and communism.

Right: Outraged by rapid inflation occuring just after World War II, Douglas led congressional efforts for price controls.

Doulgas at a store checkout counter
Douglas campaigning for the Senate

Other Nixon campaign workers called Douglas a communist when they approached strangers on the street. They called her a communist when they telephoned thousands of homes the night before the election. In an era when the nation's fear was palpable, the strategy was a great success. On election day Nixon won handily. Douglas never again ran for public office. She did not, however, leave the spotlight. A tireless public speaker and activist, Douglas lobbied for liberal causes until her death on June 28, 1980, in New York.

Left: Douglas, campaigning for a seat in the U. S. Senate, 1950.

Additional information on Douglas can be found in her autobiography A Full Life: Helen Gahagan Douglas (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982) and the biography by Ingrid Winther Scobie, Center Stage: Helen Gahagan Douglas, A Life (New York: Oxford, 1992).

The Carl Albert Center's Congressional Archives is home to Helen Gahagan Douglas's collection of papers. To access the complete inventory and collection description online, please click this link.

Copyright © 2007 Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma
Last Modified 07/03/07 cacarchives@ou.edu
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